Bum Phillips and Coaching Characters

Like everyone else, I loved Bum Phillips. Who didn’t? How could you not love Bum? He was a big ol’ Texan ex-marine who wore huge cowboy hats and started coaching high school football in Texas places like Nederland and Amarillo and Port Neches. In 1965, he went to run the defense for Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston. Yeoman ran the veer offense, Bum ran the rough and tumble defense. Then he went to coach some defense for Sid Gillman with the San Diego Chargers. Sid brought him to Houston. And in 1975, he became the Houston Oilers coach. For three years, from 1978-to-1980, he coached one of the great running back forces in NFL history (Earl Campbell) and led what was probably the second-best team in the NFL.

Bum was wonderful. He was quotable. He was lovable. He was a character. My favorite of Bum’s quotes was about the two kinds of football players you don’t’ want as a coach. “Two kinds of players ain’t worth a damn,” Bum said. “The one who never does what he’s told, and one who does nothin’ but what he’s told.” But that was hardly Bum’s only famous quote. He had a lot of classics. You probably remember his quote about Don Shula’s genius as coach -- “He can take his’n and beat your’n and he can take your’n and beat his’n.” And you probably remember that Bum wouldn’t wear his trademark Cowboy hat inside the Astrodome because his mother had always told him not to wear hats indoors. Well, there are a million Bum Phillips’ stories.

He died at age 90 on Friday. He was a wonderful character. And that’s what everybody said in his memory on radio, on television, on the internet, etc.

But there was one other thing that people also said that kind of plinked off key for me. It does seem that the first thought in many people’s minds (my mind included) when someone like Bum Phillips dies is to lament how much times have changed, how much more fun it used to be, how they “just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The widespread thought seems to be that the games used to have all these characters like Bum Phillips, and oh those were the days, and then there’s a bit of a complaining about how buttoned down and corporate and unsmiling things are these days. “Where are the characters?” people seemed to be asking. “Where are the characters like Bum Phillips?”

Like I say, I often think this thought myself.

But is this really true? Are we really lacking characters as coaches these days? I think it’s easy to say yes because the first coaches that come to mind, at least for me, are Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, and it’s absolutely true that both of those guys go to extreme lengths to appear colorless and uninteresting and humorless. But in truth football ALWAYS had those guys. Nobody was ever more colorless, uninteresting and humorless than the guy who basically invented NFL football as we know it, Paul Brown -- the guy would appear black and white on color televisions. In Bum’s time, the most famous coaches were Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Don Shula -- none of them was a character of any sort. It was often written that the only colorful thing about Tom Landry was his hat.

That’s why Bum Phillips stood out so much. He was a character surrounded by serious types.

And now? Well, you look around the NFL and, let’s face it, we’re not exactly lacking for colorful coaches these times. I mean, in America’s biggest city, Jets coach Rex Ryan is an all-time character. Heck just a couple of days ago, he was apparently lecturing the team to avoid having sex with their wives before this week’s game against the Patriots. Ryan is a free-spirit, astonishingly quotable, full of life and bravado and opinions and quirks. As far as I know, nobody lacks an opinion about Ryan, which I think is the truest sign of a character. I will always remember when he was talking about how someday the Jets would fire him because coaches always get fired. He said, “I won’t get mad. I won’t fight back. I’ll just take my three Super Bowl trophies and go on my way.”

Pete Carroll in Seattle is an all-time character. The guy’s new-agey and smiley and fierce and contradictory and insanely competitive and beloved and despised. This was a guy who, as a college coach, would go into the roughest neighborhoods of LA in the middle of the night to try and make some kind of impact on people. This is a guy who left USC just ahead of the NCAA posse. This is a guy who tries to spread his philosophy about what it means to be a winner. There was that whole 9/11 truther business. He’s also a Deadhead. He’s definitely a character.

Both the Harbaughs, John and Jim, are characters. They try to hide it, especially Jim, but there’s a lot going on there.

Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly shows promise as a character. Chuck Pagano’s a pretty interesting guy. There are several others.

And think of the recent past. Could you be more of a character than Herm Edwards? How about Jon Gruden? Bill Cowher? Has there ever been a more beloved coach than Tony Dungy?

I’m not trying to oversell this -- there is a lot of dreary seriousness in sports today. Money makes it so. Social media makes it so. There’s no percentage in being too much of a character in 2013, where a tidal wave of angst and fury can always be just one Tweet away. But this whole “There used to be more characters in the game” seems to be from the same family tree as “In my day, everybody could bunt.” There will never be another Bum Phillips. But there will be characters. The games will always be too much fun for characters to resist.